THE 2D BATTALION, 4TH MARINES, HAD BEEN KNOWN AS the “Magnificent Bastards” since its first major operation in Vietnam, Starlite, in which it helped take apart a VC regiment. That had been more than two years before its keelhauling on Operation Kingfisher, at which time the men in 2/4 no longer felt as their motto proclaimed: Second to None. Upon assuming command of 2/4 on 28 October 1967, Lt. Col. William Weise saw as his primary task resurrecting the spirit of the original Magnificent Bastards. This he stressed to his staff officers and company commanders, along with his two favorite maxims:
Good guys kill Marines. I am not going to be a murderer.
Marines will do exactly what you expect them to do. If you expect them to do nothing, they’ll do nothing. If you expect them to do great things, they’ll do great things.
Special Landing Forces (SLF) A and B of the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade (MAB) in Okinawa provided the 3d Marine Division an opportunity to remove two of its battalions from the war zone on a rotating basis and have them return refreshed and reinforced. Not surprisingly, Weise’s punched-out battalion was selected for this duty. The newly christened Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 2/4 became the infantry fist of SLF Alpha, 9th MAB, with its rear aboard the USS Iwo Jima. As the end of Weise’s standard six-month command tour approached, BLT 2/4 was again operating on the DMZ under the operational control of the 3d Marines, 3d Marine Division. But it was a different 2/4; it was a battalion that had been reshaped in Weise’s Spartan, aggressive, by-the-book image.
SATURDAY, 27 APRIL 1968. FIFTEEN HUNDRED. THE ENEMY artillery was walking inexorably toward the sandy-soiled, waist-deep crater where Capt. Robert J. Mastrion, commander of Golf Company, BLT 2/4, had sprinted when the kettledrumming to the north began, and where he presently crouched with his company gunnery sergeant. The next round is going to kill us, he thought. We have to move. Gunnery Sergeant Billy R. Armer made his move first, sprinting out of the crater in one direction. He was followed in the next heartbeat by Captain Mastrion, who leapt to the lip of the crater in the opposite direction. Mastrion hit the edge and leaned forward to run. Before he could step off, however, the next round crashed through the soft soil under his feet. He could feel the impact.
The shell exploded inside the crater. Captain Mastrion was enveloped in a roar of sand as the concussion lifted him off his feet. He went spinning like a rag doll, and actually saw the heel of his jungle boot smack his nose. Mastrion crash-landed on his back. The wind had been knocked out of him and he hurt all over, but he couldn’t find any wounds. The area’s soft soil had saved him, allowing the artillery shell to sink in before detonating, and absorbing most of the deadly metal fragments. As it was, the back of Mastrion’s flak jacket looked as though it had been sandblasted, and the knapsack secured to his web belt and hanging over his buttocks was shredded. One of his cargo pockets, those baggy thigh pockets on jungle utilities, was also torn open, and a C-ration can containing turkey loaf had been mangled by a single large chunk of steel.
Gunny Armer had also been lucky, suffering only a welt between his upper lip and nose. Nineteen rounds had thunder-clapped in. When no more incoming shrieks filled the air, Mastrion jumped up and shouted to his artillery forward observer, “Lay some smoke in here to cover us, and let’s get the hell outta here!”
The forward observer, 2d Lt. Peter A. Acly, was on his first patrol but was wired into its details. In fact, when Golf Company’s Marines had saddled up that morning in their semipermanent patrol base at Lam Xuan West, Mastrion had made Acly responsible for land navigation because he had a high-quality artillery compass. Lam Xuan West sat on the western bank of twisting, turning, but generally north-south Jones Creek, about eight kilometers below the DMZ. The hamlet was deserted and bombed out, as were all the villages in the battalion AO, and the terrain was a flat, heat-shimmering expanse of brush-dotted, shell-pocked rice paddies and sand dunes. Hedgerows and tree lines divided the land into squares. The ocean was only seven kilometers to the east. Golf Company’s mission that morning had been to patrol about twenty-seven hundred meters northwest from Lam Xuan West so as to reconnoiter the rubbled remnants of Lai An. Weise had informed Mastrion that Golf was to move into Lai An after dark as part of a three-company night operation, and Mastrion had wanted a daylight look at the place to reacquaint himself with its subtleties.
Golf Company had just been approaching the raised, east-west trail at the southern edge of Lai An when the shelling began. The muffled booming of enemy artillery was an everyday event. Since the target was usually someone else, it had not been until the first salvo was actually screaming down for an imminent and very personal impact that humping, sweating, spread-out Golf Company had dropped to its collective gut. Lieutenant Acly thought he had heard an NVA mortar firing from An My, located thirty-five hundred meters to the northeast, across Jones Creek. With the aid of his radioman, Acly organized his first real fire mission on that pos. A 105mm battery firing out of Camp Kistler on the coast to the southeast responded to the call by plastering An My with high-explosive shells, while Acly called for white phosphorus shells on Lai An to form a smoke screen that would allow Golf Company to back up without again drawing the attention of the enemy’s artillery spotters.
The company withdrew to Pho Con, which was situated about midway between Lam Xuan West and Lai An. There Golf Company dug in and waited for the cover of darkness, when it would again move north into Lai An in coordination with the battalion’s sweep on the other side of Jones Creek. In the meantime, a medevac chopper touched down briefly to take aboard two casualties from the shelling.
Captain Mastrion, who was in increasingly severe pain, was not medevacked. He had not even reported his back injury to battalion. “I was hurting,” he later said, “but I wasn’t about to start feeling sorry for myself at that point.” Mastrion could not bring himself to leave, knowing that a hairy, one-of-a-kind night operation was only a few hours away. “When you’re the company commander, you’ve got to gut it out.”
Lieutenant Colonel Weise had outlined the night maneuver the day before at the BLT 2/4 command post in Mai Xa Chanh West. It was code-named Operation Night Owl. The colonel’s map board was propped up against one of the inside walls of the bullet-pocked Buddhist temple that they had converted into a headquarters. The roof had been blown off, except for a few beams and shingles. Weise’s staff officers and company commanders, flak jackets on and helmets at their feet, sat on scrounged up Vietnamese chairs and benches, which were comparatively low and small. The Marines appeared to be sitting on children’s furniture.
Weise and his handpicked operations officer, Maj. George F. “Fritz” Warren, explained that the 3d Marines had provided intelligence indicating that an NVA battalion had assumed bivouac positions above Alpha 1, an Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) combat outpost situated one kilometer east of Jones Creek and almost seven klicks northwest of Mai Xa Chanh West. Alpha 1, located just three kilometers south of the DMZ, was the most forward allied position in the sector. The poorly led and poorly supported ARVN troops were not, however, known for aggressive operations. According to intel from the 3d Marines, the NVA battalion in question had moved into the deserted hamlet of An My, which was only eighteen hundred meters northwest of Alpha 1. Weise and Warren had secured permission from regiment to slip through the ARVN Tactical Area of Responsibility (TAOR) and initiate a nighttime spoiling attack on the NVA in An My.
Operation Night Owl, to commence the following evening, was part of Operation Napoleon/Saline, the code name for all 3d Marine Regiment activities below the eastern DMZ. The maneuver was to be led by Echo Company, commanded by Capt. James E. Livingston, which was currently headquartered in an old, shot-to-hell concrete schoolhouse in Nhi Ha. This otherwise deserted village was on the east bank of Jones Creek, three kilometers north of the battalion command post at Mai Xa Chanh West, which was on the west bank. Mai Xa Chanh West sat at the corner where Jones Creek, a tributary that averages thirty meters in width, empties into the slow-moving, greenish brown Cua Viet River, which runs generally east-west and empties into the South China Sea just seven kilometers to the northeast. The 3d Marines’ CP (Camp Kistler) was situated on the south bank of the Cua Viet, with one side bordering the ocean. This waterway defined BLT 2/4’s reason for being where it was. The Cua Viet has a branch, the Bo Dieu River, which originates three kilometers farther inland from Mai Xa Chanh West. Four kilometers upstream, the Bo Dieu flowed past the new 3d Marine Division CP in the Dong Ha Combat Base (DHCB), located on its south bank. The bulk of all division supplies were moved by the Navy’s Task Force (TF) Clearwater from Camp Kistler to the DHCB along the Cua Viet and Bo Dieu rivers, so this link with the ocean had to be kept open.
Lieutenant Colonel Weise explained that Livingston’s Echo Company was to lead the battalion’s northward movement during the hours of darkness. They were to go in blacked-out and stripped-down, with camouflage paint covering exposed skin, and cumbersome helmets and flak jackets left behind. They would move in single file, a standard formation for nighttime tactical moves. The single-file column facilitated control but made massing fires to the front more difficult in case of ambush. Given this risk, they would have to rely on noise and light discipline so as not to become targets themselves. Radio silence was to be maintained among the maneuver elements, while those radiomen who remained at Mai Xa Chanh West were to simulate routine radio traffic on the battalion tactical net. If the NVA managed to find the BLT’s frequencies, their eavesdropping would be of no help.
Nor, Weise continued, would BLT 2/4 signal its punch with the customary prep fires. To ensure coordination with the ARVN at Alpha 1, Weise planned to helicopter up that afternoon to brief their U.S. Army advisers. Four tubes from the battalion’s 81mm mortar platoon and seven hundred rounds of ammunition were also to be choppered up to Alpha 1, so as to avoid the red tape involved in getting artillery from regiment at Camp Kistler and division at the DHCB. Weise’s forward air controller was also to be placed at Alpha 1 in case air support was required. Naval gunfire from destroyers steaming offshore could also be brought to bear. The NVA in An My, however, were to experience none of this fire until after the attack had commenced on their hopefully unsuspecting positions.
Following Echo Company’s lead in the night march, Lieutenant Colonel Weise, Major Warren, and the other members of their dozen-man mini-CP would fall in with Foxtrot Company, commanded by Capt. James H. Butler, which was in Mai Xa Chanh East, directly across Jones Creek from the CP. Foxtrot’s own CP was in a Catholic church, whose cross-topped steeple still survived intact. The two-company column would silently guide on preselected checkpoints past Alpha 1, until it drew near the southern fringe of An My. At that point, a slim, shallow branch of Jones Creek running northeast would serve as the line of departure. Echo Company was to break east and then north, bypass An My, and assume positions on the far side. The company’s assault would then come from the unexpected northern side. Meanwhile, Foxtrot was to establish a base of fire in the scrubby sand dunes east of An My. Foxtrot was not to fire a shot until Echo had launched its assault, and then only at figures moving south of An My.
Those NVA able to escape Echo’s assault and Foxtrot’s grazing fire would run into Captain Mastrion and Golf Company’s blocking positions in Lai An.
The battalion’s last rifle company, Hotel, commanded by Capt. James L. Williams, would not participate in Night Owl. Hotel Company occupied a two-platoon patrol base (Objective Delta) in a small, unnamed hamlet twenty-five hundred meters southwest of Mai Xa Chanh West. Hotel also manned a separate platoon patrol base (Objective Charlie), which was another four hundred meters to the southwest, and only a kilometer east of a Bo Dieu tributary that divided BLT 2/4’s TAOR from that of the 1st ARVN Infantry Division.
Lieutenant Colonel Weise, who placed a premium on thorough, detailed operations orders (inadequate briefings had been one of the problems in 2/4 when he first got the battalion), finally began to wrap up the chalk talk. In a war where the hours of darkness generally belonged to the enemy, a night attack made sense precisely because it was the response the NVA would least expect. Nevertheless, Major Warren could sense—and he knew that Weise could, too—a certain apprehension among their officers that was too subtle to have been detected by an outsider. The uncertainty was shared to a degree even by Warren. The battalion had never before conducted a full-fledged night attack (given the difficulty involved, few battalions had), and a lot of things could go wrong out there in the dark—to include Marines accidentally shooting other Marines. Warren’s doubts were short-lived, however. Weise had gradually prepared them for just such a sophisticated scheme of maneuver, and Warren and the rest knew that Weise would be out there, too, with his own blackened face, and with his jingling rifle sling secured with olive-drab tape. It made a difference.
When Operation Night Owl got rolling after dark on 27 April 1968, 1st Lt. David R. Jones’s Echo Company platoon was in the lead, and Jones himself walked point. The column skirted the eastern side of Alpha 1, where the ARVN troops had marked a safe path through their perimeter minefield. Jones looked at Alpha 1 through his starlight scope, which gave the world a fuzzy green cast, and saw ARVN soldiers looking back at him through their own night observation devices. He figured that if the ARVN knew where they were, so did the NVA. He did not expect to find much in An My.
Farther back, Lieutenant Colonel Weise was just another bareheaded, blacked-out silhouette in the column. Along with Major Warren, the mini-CP included Sgt. Maj. John M. “Big John” Malnar, the battalion sergeant major, and Sgt. Charles W. Bollinger, who humped a PRC-25 radio and served as the battalion tactical net radio operator. Weise never went anywhere without Malnar, Bollinger, and his runner, Cpl. Greg R. Kraus.
After Echo Company moved north of An My and Foxtrot slipped to the east, the mini-CP settled in with Echo. At that point, the command group was just one more group of Marines in the dunes. “You lack control,” said Warren. “A night operation runs its course and all you can do is sort it out when it’s over.” It was time to stay close to the ground—until 0400, when Echo was scheduled to launch the attack on An My. The 0400 kickoff time was typical for a night attack. “The dog hours of the early morning,” Warren explained, “when the enemy’s sure the night’s over and nothing’s going to take place, and half the sentries are asleep.”
Some of the Marines were asleep, too. Captain Butler of Foxtrot came awake with a start in the shell crater where he had set up his command post. He had not known he was asleep. His radioman was asleep, too, and Butler realized why he had awakened: Weise’s voice was a whisper on the radio. The battalion commander wanted to make sure that Butler was in position. Weise would chew Butler out the next morning for falling asleep, but Butler was not surprised that he had. His company had spent the previous night on a trial run with the handheld infrared scopes issued for Night Owl.
“There we were, up for the second straight night,” Butler recalled later. “As much as we tried to stay awake, as dark as it was out there, you thought your eyes were open but they weren’t.”
Captain Butler’s crater was atop a low sand dune, and he presently sat up at its edge with his infrared scope. Its range was short and he could not actually see An My, which was about a klick to the northwest. Butler knew that Echo was up there somewhere with Weise, ready to drive the NVA into Foxtrot’s fires. He also knew that Golf Company was about two klicks to the southwest, setting up their blocking position in Lai An. Suddenly, the muffled report of automatic weapons shattered the silence. It was too early for the assault on An My. Butler turned to see that the night was alive with red and green tracers where the map in his head indicated Lai An was.
This is nuts, thought LCpl. James R. Lashley, a machine-gun team leader in 1st Platoon, G BLT 2/4. Unable to leave helmets and flak jackets behind in their temporary position at Pho Con, the troops, who were already humping a lot of ammo, had to wear them, and Lashley thought they sounded like a herd of water buffalo with tin cans on their backs! Lashley was both angry and scared, but mostly he was exhausted. He had been in the bush for eight months. He was a short, wiry guy, blondish and bespectacled, and a proud, able Marine. He was also a bright young man—and a realist. It seemed to him that the powers that be were not. His platoon had been operating above the Cua Viet for eight weeks and had seen a lot of action. Given the heat, the humidity, their heavy combat load, and the soft, unstable texture of the terrain that made even a short patrol a real ass-kicker, their unrelenting schedule of daylight sweeps and night ambushes, listening posts, and foxhole watch had taken a brutal physical and mental toll.
“At times we were really sharp,” Lashley recalled, “but I could see the difference.” He had not blacked out his face, neck, hands, or arms before saddling up for the night maneuver, nor had he soundproofed his gear with tape. “We were losing the edge you need to survive in combat. We were becoming ambivalent and disinterested about the most elementary rules of combat discipline. We were just going through the motions.”
Moving out from Pho Con, Golf Company closed on Lai An at Captain Mastrion’s direction in two separate maneuver elements. Golf Three, led by 1st Lt. James T. Ferland, had the point and the mission of securing the burial mounds that dotted the approach to Lai An, from which the platoon could cover the movement of the rest of the company into their blocking positions. The company’s executive officer, 1st Lt. Jack E. Deichman, accompanied Golf Three, as did the 60mm mortar section from the weapons platoon.
Captain Mastrion moved with the lead platoon of the follow-up element, SSgt. Reymundo Del Rio’s Golf One, along with a composite machine-gun and rocket section from the weapons platoon. Golf Two, commanded by 2d Lt. Frederick H. “Rick” Morgan, brought up the rear. Their slow, cautious columns moved across the flatlands and through a wet rice paddy that seemed to be an unending, splashing obstacle in the otherwise still and silent darkness. When they finally closed on the east-west trail running along the bottom of Lai An, no one was more relieved than Captain Mastrion. No one had had a harder time on the move. Because of his injured back, it had become painful for Mastrion just to stand, and a numb sensation was creeping into his legs.
When Mastrion’s back finally gave out completely after Night Owl and he was medevacked, a rumor spread that he had been relieved of command. More fantastically, there was talk that the captain’s injuries had actually been the work of a grunt “doing him a job” with a hand grenade. Untrue on both counts, but widely believed. Mastrion had been with Golf Company for only a month, and there were Marines who had come to some ugly judgments about their new skipper. One thrice-wounded grunt commented:
The troops considered Captain Mastrion to be a gung-ho cowboy with a foolhardy disregard for the company’s safety. We were worn out, but here’s this prick who wanted to “get some.” Well, we weren’t ready to hear that at that point in time. It was that zeal. The sixty mike-mike mortar section had Mastrion’s CP at Lam Xuan West bracketed. I was pretty close to some of those guys and they said, “If we get hit, he’s going to be the first to go.” We were too tired to be angry. Being angry took energy, and we were out of energy. We were just trying to survive, and we were going to take him out. It was real.
Captain Mastrion, a small, dark man with eyeglasses and a black handlebar mustache, was a jocular, straightforward product of Brooklyn, New York, and a Marine of much experience. Twenty-eight years old at the time, he had enlisted at seventeen and was later commissioned from the ranks. He served several short assignments in Vietnam between 1964 and 1967 before joining 2/4 as an assistant operations officer in late 1967. Mastrion had replaced a paternalistic and soft-spoken captain as commander of Golf Company. That, Weise commented, was the root of the problem. “Mastrion was a terrific company commander, but he was a completely different kind of personality from his predecessor, who was the kind of guy people did things for because they wanted to please him. People who worked for Mastrion were a little scared of him. He was a demanding, no-nonsense, you-do-it-this-way autocrat. He was a fighter, and he suffered no fools.”
Weise, who suffered no fools himself, added that Mastrion “handled his company extremely well when the shit hit the fan.” In fact, Mastrion earned the Silver Star on only his eighth day with Golf Company—after leading a twelve-hour-long assault on Nhi Ha in which he received two flesh wounds, and had his radio handset shot from his hand at one point.
Captain Mastrion soldiered through Operation Night Owl in stoic fashion despite his wrenched back. As Golf Company began assuming blocking positions south of Lai An’s raised trail, the battalion intelligence officer called Mastrion to report that he had an unconfirmed report that “two thousand NVA are coming down the west bank of Jones Creek at twenty-two hundred.” Mastrion looked at the luminescent dial on his watch. It was 2206, and Golf Company was precisely where the S2 had said the NVA would be moving. Mastrion was about to make a wiseass comment to their usually reliable S2 when there was a sudden commotion about fifteen meters ahead of him in the dark. Gunny Armer was up there, helping Staff Sergeant Del Rio of Golf One place one squad at a time into position. As best as it could be pieced together afterward, the commotion began when a Marine heard Vietnamese voices in the dark. Wondering if it was one of their scout interpreters, the Marine called out, “Hey, Gunny … hey, Gunny.…”
Gunny Armer said, “Who’s that?” just as an NVA potato-masher grenade came out of nowhere to bounce off his chest and explode at his feet. Someone screamed, “Jesus, gooks!” and in the first crazy, confused seconds, Cpl. Vernal J. Yealock’s squad took devastating AK-47 fire at virtually point-blank range. Only Yealock and his grenadier were not hit. The other eight men in the squad were dropped, and one who’d been hit in the head began an incoherent keening. Del Rio ran to his men and flung himself beside Armer, who’d taken a lot of small shell fragments in his face and chest. The gunny kept mumbling, “Son of a bitch, I’m hit… son of a bitch, I’m hit…!”
Captain Mastrion was still on the radio, talking to the intelligence officer. “You’d better upgrade that report a little because they’re here!” he shouted. It seemed that Golf Company’s north-moving column had inadvertently intersected a spread-out NVA column moving northeast to southwest in the open paddies. The two lines had formed an irregular X in the dark, which was suddenly exposed as the NVA’s green tracers erupted along one leg and the Marines responded with red tracers along the other. There were shouts and shadows and chaos. The weapons section moving with Mastrion instantly went into action. Two 3.5-inch rocket-launcher teams began shooting at nearby NVA muzzle flashes to disrupt that fire, and to give the four M60 crews they were teamed up with time to get into advantageous positions. The machine guns then suppressed the closest enemy positions.
There was a thirty-second crescendo of fire from the NVA soldiers closest to the center of the X, and then it seemed that they had scattered under the heavy return fire. The NVA farthest away were still blazing away. Their AK-47 automatic rifles had a cracking, bone-chilling report. Mastrion tried to count the number of tracers burning over his prone figure, but gave up. There were NVA strung out to the southwest from the point of contact, and still more to the northeast, although he could not get a feel for how many there were in that direction. He estimated that he was up against two companies, and called for reinforcements.
Lieutenant Colonel Weise, in position to attack An My, returned to radio silence after a quick reply: “This is Dixie Diner Six. You’re on your own. If I come over there with Foxtrot or Echo we’re gonna be Marines fighting Marines.”
Having been told by Captain Mastrion to bring in the artillery, Lieutenant Acly lay on his stomach with his radioman, fumbling in the dark to find his map and his red-lensed flashlight. The red lens preserved a man’s night vision. The light was not invisible, however, and Acly tried to work up the mission as fast as he could—before the NVA phantoms could spot him. Acly got a fire mission from A/1/12, a 105mm battery at Camp Kistler, as well as 81mm fire from BLT 2/4’s prepositioned tubes at Alpha 1. The rounds whistled overhead, flashbooming in the dark as Acly walked them to within two hundred meters. A platoon radioman reported on Mastrion’s company net that several NVA had broken from cover. Acly copied the grid coordinates and adjusted the arty. The voice on the radio said that it was right on target.
Golf Company was later credited with eight kills. Meanwhile, Marines were shouting and still shooting, and sporadic, ineffective NVA fire was zipping in from a distance as Golf consolidated in an area of low mounds about fifty meters west of the contact area. The company’s senior Navy corpsman approached Mastrion then and told him that the man with a head injury was most likely going to die “if we don’t get him out pretty quick and get him to a doctor.” Mastrion turned to his forward air controller (FAC), a young lance corporal instead of the lieutenant normally assigned to the job, and said, “Okay, have ’Em get an emergency medevac. Call me when he gets here, and I’ll try to find out between now and then what the situation is. If we can, we’ll get the head injury out; if not, we’re going to wave the medevac off.”
The FAC placed four unlit strobe lights at the corners of a fifty-by-fifty-meter square to mark the landing zone. The wounded were gathered there with designated litter teams. A night medevac in a potentially hot landing zone (LZ) was risky, and the FAC had argued against it. Mastrion, however, thought they could pull it off. He calculated that Golf Company was about four hundred meters east of an unnamed hamlet they had reconned that afternoon. He figured the NVA to have retreated to that cover, and he instructed Lieutenant Morgan of Golf Two to dispatch a squad-sized patrol to confirm that the NVA were actually at this relatively safe distance.
Lieutenant Acly ordered the arty to cease fire when the medevac and his wingman came into the area at 0130 with their lights off. The helicopters, Korean War-vintage CH-34 Sea Horses, were from Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 362 (the Ugly Angels), which was colocated with the BLT 2/4 rear aboard the USS Iwo Jima. The flight leader came up on the FAC’s air net and asked how far the NVA were from the LZ. Mastrion told the FAC, “Tell him I estimate it to be four hundred meters to my west.”
Mastrion turned again to his senior corpsman, who said that the man with the head injury was getting worse. That made up Mastrion’s mind about the risk, and he told the FAC to “bring ’Em in.” The lance corporal moved out then to light the four marking strobes. Brave man, Acly thought: The strobes made the FAC a target for the tracers zipping in from the distance. The helicopters planned to come in one at a time. The flight leader approached first and was in a hover above the LZ when he flipped on his landing lights for just a moment to get the lay of the land before setting down between the strobes.
In the flash of the landing lights, Captain Mastrion noticed to his horror a small building directly to the south. He recognized the building from the afternoon recon as one on the outer edge of another small, unnamed hamlet that sat near the village to the west, where the NVA had retreated. According to Mastrion’s estimate of his position, that building should not have been to the south. It should have been to the southwest, and Mastrion recognized instantly that he had miscalculated his pos. He was four hundred meters farther west of Jones Creek than he had thought, almost on top of the hamlet the NVA were in. The fire he thought he had been taking from that hamlet had actually been from NVA even farther away.
It was too late to wave off the lead helo—it had already landed. At that moment, contact erupted between Lieutenant Morgan’s recon squad to the west and an NVA element out looking for the Marines. The NVA, at the edge of the LZ, began raking the medevac ship with fire. Mastrion later said with remarkable honesty:
I really miscalculated the distances. I thought I was farther towards the creek, but it was so dark that we must have wandered over. Out in those sand dunes at night you really don’t know where the hell you are anyway. It was almost like navigating at sea. There are many decisions I made in the many months I was in combat that you could second-guess, but this is one decision that I never had to second-guess—that was a bad, bad, bad, bad decision. We had been up for a long time. It may have been fatigue, it may have been the pain from the injury, it may have been blatant stupidity, or a combination, but it was a very bad call and it got that medevac shot up.
Though Mastrion may not have called in a medevac had he correctly understood his nose-to-nose position with the NVA, the flight leader, Capt. Ben R. Cascio, an experienced and aggressive pilot, would have attempted such a mission. The Ugly Angels had that reputation when it came to emergency evacuations. Cascio, however, would have handled the mission differently, pausing in the LZ only long enough to take aboard the man with the critical head injury before pulling pitch.
As it was, the misinformed Captain Cascio powered down to settle completely into the LZ and give the Marines rushing to his Sea Horse time to get all the casualties aboard. The crew chief and door gunner were just helping the first wounded man into the cabin when the NVA suddenly opened fire. The Sea Horse was taking hits as Cascio brought his RPMs up so that he could lift out of the LZ. It seemed to take forever. Green tracers were flying everywhere. Sparks shot out of the exhausts. The whirling rotor blades filled the air with sand. A rocket-propelled grenade exploded in front of the Sea Horse, shattering the Plexiglas windshield. A sudden scream came over the air net, then obscenities mixed in with, “We gotta get outta here.… We gotta get outta here …!”
Captain Cascio’s left eye had been blown out and everyone in the crew was wounded. When the RPG exploded, Staff Sergeant Del Rio, who was helping Lieutenant Morgan load the wounded, went prone in the blinding whirlwind. The helicopter blades were right above him. He just knew that the shot-to-pieces helicopter was going to roll over on its side. The blades were going to kill him. He started to scramble away on his hands and knees, but then, to his amazement, the Sea Horse lifted off even as bullets continued to thump into it. Everyone in Golf Company watched anxiously as the helo headed south, making it only about three hundred meters before coming down hard. The copilot somehow got it airborne again and, trailing sparks, made it all the way to the boat ramp at the 3d Marines’ CP at the mouth of the Cua Viet River. There the wingman sat down to take aboard the wounded crewmen and infantrymen and fly them to the medical facilities aboard the Iwo Jima.
The next morning, when Weise went to Camp Kistler to personally brief the regimental commander on Night Owl, he inspected the damaged helicopter. It had bullet holes through the engine, some of the controls were shot away, and the cockpit was spattered with blood. “How that thing got off the ground, I’ll never know,” Weise said later. “It was just unbelievable. It was a miracle.”
But it was an incomplete miracle. In the confusion, the man with the head wound had not been placed aboard the medevac. He continued to cry out incoherently. “There was this mournful yowl, like a banshee crying,” said Lance Corporal Lashley. It sent chills down his spine. Lashley was sitting in a little hole of scooped-out sand, with his extra machine-gun ammo un-shouldered and ready for use by his nearby M60 team. They wanted the head-shot Marine put out of his unholy misery. They wanted him to die fast. He was going to die anyway. They wanted the corpsman to take him out with a morphine overdose so he would stop giving away their position.
“That was the thought that night,” Lashley remembered. “It may have been me who said it. I know I thought it.”
At that point, Lieutenant Colonel Weise instructed Captain Mastrion to pull out of Lai An and move back to Pho Con. Mastrion agreed. Golf Company had a paddy strength of only about 150 men, and he was convinced that they were terribly outnumbered. But Lieutenant Ferland, the company’s longest-serving officer, with six months in the boonies, was flabbergasted when Lieutenant Deichman, their exec, passed the word to him. Ferland wanted to hunker down in their freshly dug holes among the burial mounds, call in artillery around them, and ride out the night. He did not like Deichman. “I want to stay here,” Ferland said angrily. “When you’re in an ambush zone, whenever you move, there’s great potential of being hit again. As far as I’m concerned, we’re surrounded. If we pull back we’re going to run into more shit.”
Lieutenant Deichman, who had a pretty strong personality himself, and who respected Mastrion, told Ferland to move out. Ferland then called Mastrion directly to make his case as respectfully as he could with a skipper he did not like. “We’re okay here, we have to stay here,” he said. Mastrion, thinking of the S2’s report of two thousand NVA, which his platoon commanders did not know about, replied, “No, you have to pull back. I understand you’re okay there, but the fact is we’ve been told to withdraw.”
Mastrion doesn’t have it together, he just isn’t rational, thought Lieutenant Morgan, who also believed that the order to move was crazy. Mastrion’s compliance with the order to pull back could certainly be second-guessed. The man was not, however, flipping out. Mastrion conferred with Acly. He wanted artillery called in behind them and adjusted at hundred-meter intervals as they withdrew; he also wanted artillery fire worked along their flanks. Acly complied. Mastrion then turned to Del Rio, telling him to get a head count and ensure that no one was left behind. Del Rio was the acting gunny: Armer had accidentally been medevacked when he jumped into the shot-up Sea Horse to help a wounded man aboard.
Golf One, now commanded by its platoon sergeant, Staff Sergeant Wade, moved out behind Lieutenant Ferland’s Golf Three, which again had the point. Moving east until they hit Jones Creek, the two platoons then swung south and reached Pho Con without incident. Lieutenant Morgan’s Golf Two remained with the company headquarters, which was taking care of the man with the head wound. When Ferland informed Mastrion that they were in position at Pho Con, Mastrion told Morgan to start moving. Morgan’s first two squads disappeared into the darkness, but Morgan and his third squad stayed with Mastrion and the senior corpsman. They were not going to move until the wounded Marine died. They didn’t want to carry him when he was still alive because every time they tried to lift the poncho in which he lay, he let out a terrible groan.
Mastrion hoped that the NVA would not discover their vulnerability. The young Marine finally died about five hours after having been shot. When one of the men helping carry the body fell and twisted his ankle, a limping and disabled Captain Mastrion took his place. Lieutenant Morgan sent his last squad ahead to secure the litter team, then positioned himself at the rear of the column with a young grenadier. Morgan had also picked up an M79, and the two of them operated their single-shot, breech-loading weapons as fast as they could, pumping a barrage into the hamlet behind them. The NVA did not return the fire.
Golf Company completed its withdrawal to Pho Con by 0300. Meanwhile, the rest of the op was on schedule, and at about 0400 on Sunday, 28 April, Echo Company crossed the line of departure north of An My and commenced an on-line, firing-as-they-walked assault into the tiny, blacked-out hamlet. There was no response. The NVA had bugged out. All that remained were the still-warm coals of doused cooking fires, indicating that the NVA squatters had only recently vacated the premises. They left behind nothing of value.
“There was a great feeling of disappointment,” said Major Warren. There was also suspicion about the ARVN at lonely, vulnerable Alpha 1. The ARVN were only trying to survive, not win, their endless war. One does not live to hide another day by picking fights with a better-led, better-equipped opponent. Weise and Warren were convinced that their allies had forewarned the NVA about Operation Night Owl. The troops had other explanations. “We had to tape everything down to make it silent,” commented a regimental sniper attached to Echo Company, “but if you ever heard a Marine company going through the night, especially when they’re tired, you’d know we were fooling ourselves.”
Come daylight, the companies returned to their patrol bases. Just east of Lai An, the Vietnamese scout with Echo Company talked a wounded NVA out of a bunker in which he’d been discovered. Skirting on past Pho Con, Echo came under a thirty-two-round barrage of 130mm artillery fire from the DMZ while crossing the big, calf-deep rice paddy. It offered no cover, and Echo made a run for it. “Hell, the CP group got in front of the platoons,” remembered the company’s forward observer (FO). “We were really humping to get out of that goddamn place.” The soft paddies absorbed the shells before they exploded. “You’d hear these things come in and you’d dive under water with your mouth open for the concussion,” commented the attached sniper. “The thing would blow up, then you’d hear shrap-metal just raking overhead. You’d get up and run again—and then you’d dive underwater, get up, and run again.…”
Marine artillery fired counterbattery missions, followed by three air strikes on suspected enemy gun positions. There were seven secondary explosions. Echo Company had one man slightly wounded. Before Echo pushed on for Nhi Ha, a medevac landed for the wounded prisoner they had in tow throughout the barrage. Talk was that the enemy soldier had been hit again by his own artillery. Whatever the specifics of his injuries, he did not survive, as was recorded in the BLT journal: “POW was DOA at DHCB.”
Captain Mastrion did not make Golf Company’s early afternoon hump back to Lam Xuan West. After bringing in a Sea Horse for the last of the wounded—and their one poncho-covered killed in action (KIA)—Mastrion wanted to get in a quick catnap before they saddled up to depart Pho Con. He woke up in excruciating pain. His back muscles had spasmed, and he could neither feel nor move his legs. Mastrion was finally medevacked.
Lieutenant Deichman, the exec, got Golf Company moving again after taking some twenty rounds of flat-trajectory artillery fire—and after Lieutenant Acly laid in a smoke screen to cover their movement. Golf’s hump back to Lam Xuan West and Echo’s return to Nhi Ha relieved a squad-sized detachment that had been sent up from battalion to guard the footbridge between the two hamlets during the night. The Marines had set up on the Nhi Ha side with a dangerously thin half-moon of one-man fighting holes.
“Without a doubt, this was the most hair-raising night I spent in Nam,” wrote Cpl. Peter W. Schlesiona, late of Golf Company. He had been sent back to battalion with severe jungle rot and ringworm, and was the man in charge of the detail. He and another corporal alternated between radio watch and walking the line to keep people awake. During the night, they heard the sounds of Golf’s fight and of the helicopters. “As it was night, we rightly assumed these were medevac choppers,” wrote Schlesiona. “This made us particularly bitter the next morning as we helplessly watched Vietnamese civilians looting the personal effects that Golf Company Marines had left at their positions in Lam Xuan West. The most we could do was fire, uselessly, over their heads, as any direct action would have meant deserting our positions.”
The battalion’s assistant operations officer, Capt. “J. R.” Vargas, took command of Golf Company after its return to Lam Xuan West. His was only an interim command—until a full-time replacement could be found for Mastrion—but Golf was glad to have him aboard. More precisely, they were glad to have him back aboard: Captain Vargas had previously commanded the company for more than two months and was, in fact, the soft-spoken, paternalistic skipper whom Mastrion had replaced. “When the word circulated that Vargas was coming back, people were ecstatic,” Acly said later. At the time, Acly wrote in his pocket notebook, “Everybody loves him, and he seems to be a rather charismatic personality.”
On Monday, 29 April 1968, BLT 2/4 became involved in the opening act of a major, across-the-DMZ offensive by the 320th NVA Division that would be met at a number of far-flung locations and be known collectively as the Battle of Dong Ha. The NVA objective was probably the Dong Ha Combat Base, which was a kilometer south of the town of the same name. The DHCB was the major logistics base and headquarters location of the 3d Marine Division. “The establishment of these functions at Dong Ha was logical,” wrote one of the division’s assistant operations officers, “since it was situated at the junction of the only major north-south (National Route QL 1) and east-west (National Route QL 9) land lines of communications in the area of operations, as well as being accessible to shallow-draft cargo craft from the Gulf of Tonkin via the Cua Viet River and its tributary, the Bo Dieu.”
The first contact of the offensive occurred in the afternoon of 29 April when two NVA battalions were engaged on Route 1 as they marched south from the DMZ. The NVA were met only seven klicks above Dong Ha by two battalions of the 2d Regiment, 1st ARVN Infantry Division, whose TAOR extended to both sides of Route 1 and included Dong Ha and the DHCB. The NVA offensive had been anticipated to some degree. Task Force Clearwater, colocated with the 3d Marines at Camp Kistler, had advised division two days earlier that a number of incidents, “each in itself relatively insignificant,” led to the conclusion “when taken as a whole that the enemy might be preparing to interdict the waterway.” These incidents included knowledge of a VC platoon that had been detailed to diagram the waterway between Camp Kistler and the DHCB, and to collect data on the number of boats plying the rivers. There had also been, noted the report prepared by the assistant ops officer, “a substantial increase during the last week of April in attacks by fire, generally by rockets from the local area and by tube artillery located north of the DMZ, against both the port facilities at the mouth of the Cua Viet and the offloading ramp at Dong Ha.”
The first of May was considered a likely candidate for the timing of any spectacular Communist maneuver. The division-level report continued: “Given the intelligence available and the approach of Mayday, the contact of the 2d ARVN on the 29th was not a great surprise.”
With the ARVN and NVA engaged above Dong Ha, Maj. Gen. Rathvon M. Tompkins, who had been in command of the 3d Marine Division since November 1967, when Major General Hochmuth was killed in a chopper crash, committed part of the division reserve. Task Force Robbie, as the reserve was designated, was at Cam Lo, ten klicks west of Dong Ha in the 9th Marines’ TAOR. A light force consisting of a rifle company from 1/9 and a tank company from the 3d Tank Battalion was organized, and together they moved out posthaste on Route 8B, a provincial road running east from Cam Lo to intersect Route 1 about two klicks north of Dong Ha. It was the most direct route to the battle. It was also the most predictable, and the reaction force, while traveling in column through Thon Cam Vu three kilometers out of Cam Lo, encountered mines and entrenched NVA with rocket-propelled grenades. Although claiming twenty-six NVA killed, the Marines had four tanks damaged and were forced to extricate themselves from the hamlet with four dead and twenty-nine wounded. In addition, seven Marines were reported missing after the fighting withdrawal. Their bodies were subsequently recovered.
In response to the disaster in Thon Cam Vu, Major General Tompkins instructed 3/9 to reduce the NVA positions there. The attack was to commence the next day, with tank support. In the meantime, the unreinforced ARVN battalions were still heavily engaged on Route 1. If uncontained, the NVA could push on to Dong Ha. To prevent this, division alerted the 3d Marines, who were relatively unengaged on the east flank, to release a rifle company to protect the bridge on Route 1 above Dong Ha.
Colonel Milton A. Hull, commander of the 3d Marines, placed Captain Livingston’s E BLT 2/4 opcon to division, and Sea Horses lifted the company from Nhi Ha to the north end of the bridge, where it dug in beside a populated hamlet. Propeller-driven Skyraiders were bombing and napalming farther up the highway, and Livingston took a quick jeep ride just as the battle was petering out. The ARVN had held, and they showed Livingston a number of freshly killed NVA who had new uniforms, web gear, and weapons. Livingston was impressed: “It was clear to me we had some fresh troops moving down against us. I knew it was for real.”
“With everything else that was going on, Colonel Hull had me ‘spread the regiment out along the Cua Viet,’” wrote Maj. Dennis J. Murphy, the regimental S3 at Camp Kistler. “Hull was looking days ahead.” Hull had operational control of three battalions. BLT 2/4 was deployed north of the Cua Viet, and his other rifle battalion, 1/3, was to the south. Hull’s third element, the 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion, was tied down in strongpoints along the coastal side of the regimental TAOR. Hull realigned all of these units before nightfall, a move that led Murphy to comment, “I was concerned, as was 2/4, 1/3, and the Amtracs, that we were getting too thin, and we’d have some trouble massing force. When I started to resist the ‘spreading,’ Hull said, The bastards are going to try to take Dong Ha, and we’ve got to be able to keep them from getting across the river.’”
Major Murphy added that “by the time Colonel Hull was satisfied that we had all the potential routes covered, the Marine units—especially Bill Weise—were calling me the ‘fastest grease pencil in the East.’”
Weise was very concerned about regiment’s instructions. To the north of the BLT CP in Mai Xa Chanh West, Vargas’s G Company had to expand the Lam Xuan West perimeter to include E Company’s vacated positions across Jones Creek in Nhi Ha. To the east, Butler’s F Company remained in Mai Xa Chanh East as the BLT reserve, but placed a platoon in My Loc, which was also on the northern shore of the Cua Viet but two klicks farther downriver. Weise could not move F or G Companies without regiment’s approval. His only remaining maneuver element was Williams’s H Company, which was screening the western flank from Objective Charlie and Objective Delta.
From the roof of his farmhouse CP, Captain Williams had a clear view of the tributary that divided BLT 2/4 from the ARVN TAOR. The area was particularly vulnerable, because the two ARVN battalions previously in position there were the ones that had been moved west to meet the NVA coming down Route 1. The 320th NVA Division would, in fact, exploit this weak seam the next morning, and BLT 2/4 would thus be committed.
Captain Mastrion, medevacked two days before the battle, was still an immobile patient aboard the USS Iwo Jima when a Marine from the battalion rear addressed the sickbay. The Marine said that the battalion was in trouble, and had taken terrible casualties. He said that any of the wounded who could still function should return to the field. The situation was that bad. Several young Marines on the ward, including some with gauze-packed bullet wounds who had just been medevacked from the same battle, got up to go back ashore. Mastrion joined them. He figured that the very least he could do was stand radio watch, from a prone position, at the command amtrac in Mai Xa Chanh West. Mastrion had a corpsman tightly wrap his aching back with an elastic bandage so he could stand, then asked the corpsman to find him some crutches so he could get around. The corpsman produced two canes of uneven length. Mastrion had someone go to the ship’s armory to draw a .45-caliber pistol for him, while he hobbled down to the below-deck hangar where the medevac choppers were lowered by elevator. The hangar deck was heaped with bloody gear.
Mastrion rummaged through the discarded equipment in search of jungle utilities with which to replace his blue hospital pajamas. He also found the jungle boots that had been cut off his feet when he’d arrived. One of his dog tags was still secured to the cut laces of the left boot.
The other walking wounded soon gathered in the hangar, along with shipboard support personnel who had volunteered to serve as riflemen, “and when the birds came in we just got on them and went ashore,” said Mastrion. “It wasn’t anything dramatic. Nobody was whistling the Marine Corps hymn or anything. We just went. What were you going to do? Your friends are in trouble, so you just got up and did it.”